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Worldbuilding 4: technology




There is a scene in Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark where Jones is suddenly faced with a ninja swordsman. The ninja performs an elaborate show-off routine with his sword, preparing for the kill; Jones takes out a revolver and shoots him. It's a neat comic episode, but it could also stand as a caveat for writers of fantasy fiction: get your technology right or your epic may turn into a comedy.

In this article I will explore the role of technology in fantasy novels and consider some of the ground rules and potential pitfalls. These are not dissimilar from the other aspects of worldbuilding that I have explored in earlier articles; but technology has a few qualities of its own that it's worth considering.

When we think of fantasy literature, most of us envisage a quasi-mediaeval world, where the characters use swords, bows and spears to wage war on a variety of more or less exotic enemies. Magic may play a part in warfare too, but the technology is conventionally limited to implements recognisable as belonging to a period before the invention of guns. For the majority of fantasy readers and writers, this is the appropriate milieu.

Naturally, it's not always so simple. There are sub-genres of fantasy (steam punk, urban fantasy) where the setting includes more advanced technology: powered vehicles, guns and artillery, advanced medicine, rudimentary utilities and communications. However, the principles governing technology in fiction are the same whatever the chosen level. In fact, they are the same whatever genre you write in. Technology is a good way of showing the level of development in the world you depict, and it brings a vein of practical realism to even the most exotic of fictions.

In terms of worldbuilding, the technology you choose impacts on all aspects of your project: geography, culture, magic, characters and plot. Consistency is the key point here; that, and avoiding what is often referred to as info-dumping.

Achieving consistency is a matter of thinking through the elements you intend to use, and making sure they are present in their full capacity, warts and all. In the real world, technology does not appear from nowhere, as if by magic; it is the end of a complex process.

For instance, if your characters use metal weapons - iron or steel, usually - then you should make it clear where they came from. The geography of your world must include either physical elements that allow for extracting iron ore and smelting it (and thus another technology or two) or a trading system that provides supplies either of the ore or finished weapons. This, clearly, means that the culture you invent must be capable of metalworking, and live in a place where such work is possible; or it must have a relationship with other cultures that fulfil those criteria.

In other words, an element as apparently simple as a sword needs a context that makes it plausible; resources, skills, and traditions at the very least. This is true of every element in your world, of course, but for technology it means understanding some pragmatic and, well, technical issues.

The technology should - at least in the context of a specific culture - be of a consistent level. If you have one weapon or tool that is much more advanced than all the rest, you may struggle to convince the reader it is justified. For instance, if your characters use swords and bows, but communicate by walkie-talkie, some readers will feel, understandably, that you are cheating. Conversely, if your characters inhabit a grand fortress but fight with stone clubs and slings, your reader may think something has gone wrong at the planning stage.

You should avoid technology (or magic for that matter) that acts as implausible, or unfair, plot armour. Characters with no vulnerabilities are less interesting, and far less convincing, than those that take risks we can all identify with. So if you do want to give your hero a suit of impenetrable magical armour, consider leaving a chink in it somewhere.

Your technology should be relevant to the story. That sounds obvious, but if you get hooked by worldbuilding, you may find yourself creating all sorts of wonderful gadgets, only to realise they don't do anything for the story; and while some readers may be as fascinated by the gadgets as you are, I suspect the majority will be rather impatient and perhaps think you are showing off for the sake of it.

I've mentioned in previous articles that most fantasy authors think in terms of a series of books rather than a standalone, one-off project. But even if you are writing a single novel, the next point is relevant. Don't put everything out there at once. Explain or describe some technology if it works in the framework of the story; otherwise, give hints and clues rather than explicit descriptions. As with culture and geography, the technology you use should develop with the plot line; and bear in mind that most readers of fantasy literature are repeat customers, who are familiar with the milieu and the ground rules.

One final thought: human technology often has a downside. Pollution, waste, denuding landscapes; all these negative issues go with the territory. People are often exploited too, particularly in the extraction of heavy elements such as metal ore or coal. Acknowledging this in your book, or better, making these problems part of the story, would add a level of verisimilitude that many fantasy books neglect. And verisimilitude is the cornerstone of good fiction.

Only openly explore a proportion of your worldbuilding; leave the rest as hints, or background.

Make sure the tech is actually useful in the context of the story.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels.

Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction

Worldbuilding 3: geography and location

Worldbuilding 5: culture

Worldbuilding 6: magic

Worldbuilding 7: it's a kind of magic